August 6, 2004

Review: Kanotix LiveCD makes Debian simple

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Debian is one of the fastest growing distributions of GNU/Linux, thanks in part to its Advanced Packaging Tool (APT). However, Debian is difficult to install for many new users. While many commercial projects such as Red Hat and Mandrake offer advanced hardware autoconfiguration, Debian relies on a user's knowledge of the underlying hardware. Enter Kanotix -- a bootable GNU/Linux distribution based on Klaus Knopper's Knoppix that uses mostly fresh Debian sid packages.

Because it's a LiveCD you can try out Kanotix without having to worry about losing the information stored on your hard drives. You can take Kanotix with you wherever you go if you want instant access to a GNU/Linux operating system. All that you have to do is insert the CD and reboot (some users may also have to set their BIOS to boot from the CD drive). Unlike Knoppix, Kanotix uses the latest Debian/sid packages. The newest ISO of Kanotix includes Linux 2.6.6 compared to the 2.4 series found on Knoppix, and many of the desktop applications are similarly updated. Kanotix also includes Captive for improved NTFS read/write capabilities.

The Kanotix CD provides many of the applications you would find on a full desktop system. The default desktop environment is KDE 3.2.2, so there is no lack of eye candy. For Web browsing, Kanotix provies both Mozilla and Konqueror, easily accessible via shortcuts on the application bar. Open Office 1.1.1 can handle most Microsoft Office documents properly, so there is no need to fear incompatibility (besides, you can always take the CD out -- remember that there is no harm in giving this a try!).

Kanotix GNU/Linux uses the Debian packages, of which more than 7,000 are available in one of the most comprehensive software libraries on the planet. Once you have a Kanotix system installed, you can use Debian's APT utility to install and update software. To start with, upgrading to the most recent packages to fix possible bugs and security holes is probably a good idea. The two commands apt-get update and apt-get upgrade will upgrade all the currently installed packages that have updates available. Do this every few days to keep up to date.

If you want to install new software, you type apt-get install packagename to install packagename. If you aren't sure whether the software you need is available as a Debian package, you can visit the Debian package repository. Packages are downloaded from Internet repositories when you install, so if you are on dial-up expect software installs to take quite some time. To remove installed programs, type apt-get remove packagename.

Install Kanotix to disk

Running from CD is great in many circumstances, but Kanotix is not just a bootable CD. It's a fully functional Debian/sid system with an easy to use installer that just happens to be able to boot to a desktop environment. If you want to install Kanotix on your PC, simply boot to your Kanotix CD as you normally would, open the Kanotix menu and the Tools submenu, then select Root Terminal. Type kanotix-installer and press Enter. At the Kanotix Installation main menu, just to confuse you, you must select option three first to partition your hard drive.

When you select this option, the Kanotix installer launches an easy to use, graphical program called QTParted that allows you to set up your partition tables. If you already have a Windows NTFS partition that you wish to keep, QTParted can resize it. For those who have never installed GNU/Linux before, it requires two partitions: One for the root (/) and one for swap. The swap partition should be anywhere from 128MB to 512MB generally, depending on how much RAM you have. For more information about disk partitioning on GNU/Linux, consult this tutorial.

After you write the partitions to disk, quitting QTParted should bring you back to the initial Kanotix Installer menu. Now you may select option one and configure the install. From the next menu, I suggest you choose the beginner install. Answering the simple questions provided should be no problem, except when it comes to the boot loader. If you have Microsoft Windows installed and you wish to be able to boot both Windows and Linux, then you must install to the Master Boot Record. If you have another boot loader already set up, chances are you will just want to install to root partition and point the other boot loader there.

If you are the paranoid type, you can save your configuration to disk (via Captive if it is NTFS; do not use the built-in kernel driver) before going on to the final step, step two. Once Kanotix has finished copying files, you can safely reboot the system after unmounting all the filesystems and remove the CD. Turn your computer back on, and choose Debian GNU/Linux from the boot menu.

If you run it on a computer with Windows currently installed, Kanotix provides an easy way to read and write your Windows partition through a program called Captive. To use it, look beside the K menu button on the bottom left for another button that invokes the Kanotix menu. Open this menu and the Tools submenu, then select Captive Install Acquire. The Captive program gives you fairly simple directions on how to find and mount your NTFS partitions onto your GNU/Linux file hierarchy.


Kanotix is an excellent distribution for GNU/Linux beginners who want an easy-to-install, up-to-date, non-commercial version of Debian. It's easy to configure for hard drive use, but at the same time it comes with a plethora of packages for use as a standalone LiveCD. If you are a Windows user who hasn't tried out GNU/Linux on the desktop lately, download Kanotix and try it.

Preston St. Pierre is a computer information systems student at the University of the Fraser Valley.


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